MANSFIELD -- Leta Keller clutched the pyrography pen like a pencil, carving the dotted pattern of a feather with cautious deliberation. Her three older siblings sat beside her, each with their own woodburning tool in hand.
The Kellers spent their Saturday morning crafting Native American game pieces as part of the Mansfield Art Center’s Free Art Saturday program, a monthly class designed to provide accessible opportunities for children and families.
“With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s an opportunity to get out of the house and try something new. Take them out of their comfort zone,” said the children’s father, Ben. “This is definitely not your typical art project.”
Free Art Saturdays are held at the art center the fourth Saturday of the month, January thru November. Before the pandemic, there were up to 30 slots available; now classes are limited to 10 to allow for social distancing.
Program Director Deb Weaver said the goal of the program is to make art education accessible to all families.
“Free Art Saturday is a program that we offer families so that they stay connected to Mansfield Art Center, but it's also to give families an opportunity to do something with fine art that does not have financial burden behind it,” she explained.
Each Free Art Saturday has a different craft, so families can access different types of media throughout the year. Community sponsors typically cover the cost of materials and instruction.
“It allows us the ability to make the programming very rich because of not having the monetary restraints,” Weaver said.
January’s program gave kids the chance to make their own Stave stick game set. Each child got a set of flat craft sticks and to engrave with nature-inspired designs.
“Stave” describes a collection of games played by Native Americans as early as the 16th century. The stick game was a game of chance requiring six sticks, often from an elderberry or willow tree. After carving designs into one side of each stick, players would take turns tossing them into the air. Points were scored based on the number of sticks that fell with the designs facing upward.
Before demonstrating the craft and how to safely use the pyrography pen, Weaver explained that centuries ago, Native Americans used natural elements like wood, berries and plants to make art.
“Native Americans 500 years ago didn't have things like paint brushes, they didn't have people making black and blue and red and yellow paint,” she told the students. “They were using things from the environment and creating beautiful artworks.”
Weaver tries to incorporate science, math and history concepts into the art programming whenever possible. She showed the class how Native Americans would pound a fibrous yucca leaf with a rock to create a bristly paint brush and explained how the leaf’s chlorophyll helped bond berry ink to a surface, creating an image that would last hundreds of years.
Holly Frankhouse of Galion said the project was perfect for her daughter, Lily, who is learning about Sacagawea in school.
“Now she can picture her playing this game,” Holly said.
While art can build bridges to understanding many different cultures and ideas, Saturday’s class held a personal significance for Weaver.
“Both my grandparents were actually taken from their parents and given to White families,” she said. “That added to a great deal of how the Native American culture got washed out. Families like my family did not end up learning about (their culture).”
In addition to leading the project, Weaver also showed the students Native American artifacts that had been donated to the center.
“I like to integrate as much culture as I possibly can,” she said. “I am looking for deeper meaning than just the art itself -- helping them to learn something about past culture and how it relates to today and how things have changed.”